When a friend told his mother he had become a vegetarian, she was unfazed. On his next visit home, she served roasted chicken as usual. As he pushed away his plate, she was perplexed: “I didn’t think a little bit of chicken would be a problem.”

In the darker ages of the 1980s, going vegetarian, let alone vegan, was seen as a baffling and antisocial decision. It was the culinary equivalent of weaving your own clothes or living off the national grid. Dinner invites dried up, and if you went out to eat, you were braced for a vegetable bake swimming in cheese sauce or watery mushroom stroganoff.

In that respect, life for vegetarians and vegans is immeasurably better now, with kitchens in even the humblest venues finding imaginative ways to please them. The pendulum has swung so far, indeed, that things are becoming difficult for chefs. A diner in a Peebles restaurant caused hilarity and irritation in equal measure recently when she asked for her steak to be well done, because she was vegetarian.

She’s only one of a growing number of ill-informed consumers who give proper vegetarians, pescatarians and vegans a bad press. Restaurateurs share stories of self-styled vegans opting for chocolate mousse or vegetarians scoffing scallops. A few months ago, one establishment was astonished to get through lunch service without a single special dietary request. It was like turning the clock back.

Genuine food intolerances and allergies are, of course, no laughing matter. For some they can end in A&E or worse. But what seems to be driving chefs crazy is the fickleness – and rudeness – of individuals who, after reading a menu, decide to go off piste. Many so-called vegetarians or vegans have donned the label as if it was a winter coat, without a clue of what it really means. As Veganuary gathers momentum, people wander around supermarkets seeking tofu and soya milk, before reaching for their calfskin wallet or leather-cased phone.

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Adopting a vegan diet for a month, a year, or forever, is laudable. Whether the motivation is the climate emergency, compassion for animals, or a gastronomic detox, the world would be a better place if for the past fifty years we had consumed less meat and dairy.

Compared to us, distant generations were almost vegetarian, not through ethical awareness, but because of the cost and availability of meat. Peasant cooking, from southern Europe to the Outer Hebrides, was based on pulses or grains, potatoes and vegetables. A chicken bone or rasher of bacon was the height of luxury. Samuel Johnson’s sneering definition of oats was close to the truth: “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” It’s changed days now, when some households think no meal is complete unless it has come via the butcher’s slab.

The problem with initiatives like Veganuary is that a well-intentioned idea, in the same spirit as Dry January, can have an unintended knock-on effect. For a start it legitimises the idea of adopting a label whenever you like. The deep-rooted principles behind veganism, recently recognised in a landmark legal case as a philosophical belief system, mean a wholesale commitment in every area of life. It is not merely a matter of avoiding consuming animals and fish and their obvious by-products. Dipping a toe into Veganuary is no more meaningful than giving up alcohol for Lent. Those who spend six weeks without a drink would never describe themselves as tee-total when entering a bar or restaurant. They would simply ask for a soft drink or water.

Confusion over dietary labels is one thing, but the sense of entitlement that allows people to demand whatever they want to eat, regardless of what’s on offer, is a symptom of societal change. In this new climate, the customer is not just king but dictator. Some restaurants worry that having to cater for so many whims, as opposed to bonafide requirements, could put them out of business. When online reviews by disgruntled diners can spell commercial death, the hospitality industry is walking a tightrope that could snap at any moment.

At the other end of the food chain, farmers are also feeling beleaguered. With cattle producing high levels of methane, which is contributing to the warming atmosphere, those with dairy and beef herds are in danger of becoming pariahs. When people who won’t eat meat or dairy pile in behind environmentalists, landowners with herds are in an unenviable position. Constantly on the defensive, they are growing uneasy, unsure whether to raise their voices to improve their public image, or try to stay out of the limelight.

In rural areas such as Dumfries and Galloway, the Borders or Aberdeenshire, cattle and sheep are not just a way of life, but often the most productive use of land. It is not always possible, let alone desirable, to turn grazing into arable, or to plant every square metre with trees.

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For champions of animal welfare, it’s understandable that no argument will convince them that livestock husbandry is acceptable. But those who stuff themselves on turkey and chipolatas at Christmas and renounce meat in January, counting off the days before they can sink their teeth into a burger, should pay the same respect to herdsmen and shepherds as they do to the environment and its creatures. While not all farms are raising their game, many are very conscious of the need to mitigate the impact of their burping cattle, and are finding inventive ways of modernising their techniques.

Rather than joining the food fadishists, whose commitment is short-lived, we could do worse than consciously eating less meat and dairy each week, and buying as locally as possible. We’d not only be supporting our neighbourhood, but massively reducing the miles our food has travelled. Eating seasonal produce and avoiding far-flung produce – raspberries in December (guilty), asparagus at New Year (ditto) – would surely have as significant an impact on shrinking our foodprint as snubbing the butcher’s shop until February.

Whatever our ideologies and concerns, the dinner table should never become a battleground. I’m with Mark Twain when he said, “The secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside.”